"Okay," Ruslan said. "What does the poem mean?"
"I have no idea," Cassandra said. "But the owl told me to come back to her after I open the box. Maybe I'll find out what it means."
"Are you sure you're going to see this talking owl tonight?"
Cassandra looked from the letter to her cousin with conflicted eyes.
"I have a feeling that I have to," she said.
"Then let me go with you."
"No." Cassandra shook her head. "I can't let you come with me. It might be dangerous."
Ruslan frowned. "I will take my baseball bat."
"Still, your parents would kill me if anything happened to you," Cassandra said. Ruslan wasn't happy about that.
They had packed a bag and the flashlight, and they had almost felt as if it was going to be a long journey. The aunt and uncle returned from the festival, exhausted and moody. Cassandra had already prepared their dinner, including all the required health seeds. Then she took the twins to bed and read them bedtime stories until they fell asleep, but the whole time she would glance at the clock.
It wasn't until ten that everyone was sleeping, except Ruslan and her.
"You sure you don't want me to come with you?" Ruslan asked one more time when Cassandra pushed back the blanket. She was already dressed for the cold night, but still, it was one of the coldest nights in winter. Cassandra shook her head dumbly before slinging her backpack with the chest inside.
"Don't worry, it's not far from the house," she reassured him, "so I'll be there before you can say when."
"Yeah, when?" Ruslan asked with a mischievous smile.
"Smartypants." Cassandra tried not to laugh. She patted his head then she tiptoed through the door with her cousin standing in the hallway, looking concerned.
With her flashlight in the lead, she walked around the side of the house to the heavily wooded area she had last seen the owl. Halfway there, the fear began to creep in, Cassandra shivered. She pulled down the hood of her parka and tried not to slip on ice. When she reached the ancient tree, no one was there.
"Great," Cassandra sighed. "I'll just pretend I've been sleepwalking this whole time."
"You wish," came a voice from the darkness, a dry little voice that could only belong to the owl. She then came swooping down from the sky. Her enormous body glided through the air like a kite before landing at the exact same spot. "You're late. I had feared..."
Whatever the owl feared will never be known, for Cassandra, with a surprised gasp, stumbled backward and fell just like she did last time. The owl rolled her bright eyes.
"Why do you always do that to me?" Cassandra cried, still breathing hard. "Can't you be normal like other birds?"
"Enough nonsense," the owl said. "And stop shining that damn light in my face, you're going to blind me."
With her shaking hands, Cassandra struggled to switch the flashlight off, which threw a wavering ellipse of white into the sky. She wondered if anyone would see it, but if anyone was looking, it would be Ruslan, who was probably watching from their bedroom window by now.
"So," the owl said after a while. "Have you opened the chest?"
"Yes," Cassandra said.
"Good. I was right then."
"What do you want? And what is this all about?"
"You are young enough to know better. Now, I have a very important matter to discuss with you, and I don't want any screaming, and falling, or any pointless asking. Is that understood?"
Her tone was as demanding as before, and Cassandra had to nod again.
"Now get up and follow me, child," the owl said. She was starting to spread her wings again, but Cassandra stopped her with a question.
"Wait, just where are we going?"
"To the castle over there," said the bird as if it was already obvious.
"But...but why?" Cassandra asked, staggering back onto her feet.
"You will see soon enough." Then the owl flapped her wings and flew off in the direction of the ancient castle which perched gloomily on the hill.
The owl flew from one tree to another, waiting for Cassandra to catch up and maybe to make sure that she was following.
They finally reached the walls of the ruin enclose a rectangular area with the crumbled stones laying around the castle.
It wasn't much of an attraction for tourists since there were just walls and columns left with no roof, and the authority didn't pay much attention to it either, so the whole site was left unguarded.
Cassandra and the owl went passed the threshold. The girl stumbling through the fallen stones as the owl flew off into the main hall. At the far end of the room was what looked to be a large oval window frame made of bronze and gold material. Cassandra was pretty sure that no one had seen it there before, otherwise, it would be gone already. It seemed like something the thieves would want. She wondered why it was in this ruin.
"It's a mirror," the owl said as if reading her mind.
"A mirror?" Cassandra walked a few more steps forward and looked up and down at the empty frame. She could walk through it like a door if she wanted. "But where's the mirror?"
"A magic mirror, mind you," the owl added. "And stop looking so surprised every time I talk. I am not evil and I do not wish to see you hurt. On the contrary, I desperately need your help."
"My help?" Cassandra looked at the owl, who soberly inclined her head.
"Yes," said the owl. "Now sit down and shut up."
Cassandra reluctantly obeyed.
"I have a long story to tell and a short time in which to tell it," the owl began. "I have no more time for foolishness, so listen carefully. You and your world are going to end."
"Huh? My world?" said Cassandra with a raised brow.
"Yes, pay attention, because on the night of the winter solstice, the mirror will be open to all, and Czar Koschei can come through. And he will come through, too, unless Vasilisa can get here first and close him out."
"Vasilisa?" said Cassandra blankly.
"Vasilisa is my mistress and a princess and the greatest sorceress of her time," the owl told her. "But she's been cursed, captured, entrapped, transformed, imprisoned, and who knows what else! And it depends on you to save her because she's the only person who can close the Entrance!"
The owl flapped her wings as if in great frustration then she swept Cassandra with a gaze from eyes like golden lumps. "Will you help me? Will you lift a hand to save yourselves from slavery and destruction? Or will you sit here quietly and await your doom?"
There was a pause. Finally, Cassandra blinked.
"I'm sorry," she said, "I don't think you're evil anymore. But frankly, I don't have the first idea what you're talking about. What doom?"
"Don't you understand doom? The end of the world?" the owl looked on in astonished scorn. "You understand — apocalypse?"
Cassandra blinked again.
The owl sighed. "Of course you don't. I fully intend to explain." She hesitated a moment as if uncertain where to begin. Then she said, "I suppose you, children, have been taught to disbelieve in magic?"
"Well...we used to but..." said Cassandra.
"Of course you have! And rightly so. Because there is no magic — or precious little of it — in this impure world, anymore. But that doesn't mean there never was. The world where magic originated is called the World Beyond. And it is, or was, connected to countless mortal entrances."
"Wait a minute, the World Beyond? Is it like another dimension or something?" Cassandra asked.
"Well, call it what you want, but just know that only children with special bloodline found the World Beyond. I suppose you people would call them witches and wizards. Anyway, they wandered into the World Beyond, and the folk whom you call 'fairies' from the World Beyond also passed into the human world — but there were also sorcerei and elementals and monsters you know only through stories and legends."
"Really? I thought they were only old folklore created to scare children," Cassandra said. "And who is Koschei?"
"You will learn all about the Sorcerer Czar another time," the owl said. "Now you must enter the World Beyond with me and save Princess Vasilisa."